The Civil War and Reconstruction seemed to advance the cause of women’s suffrage, at least for a time. In the North there was strong support for the idea that along with freedom should come political rights for African Americans. Sensitivity for the condition of former slaves invigorated rhetoric of universal rights, and the Republican Party—in control of Congress and most state legislatures—was in a position to turn advocacy into reality. Those in the women’s suffrage movement anticipated that the progress made towards universal rights in the name of African Americans would advance the cause of women’s rights as well, sweeping women into the franchise alongside freedmen. Elizabeth Cady Stanton remarked that women intended “to avail ourselves of the strong arm and the blue uniform of the black soldier to walk in by his side.”
Women also argued that they had taken steps towards earning the right to vote as a result of supporting the war effort. This was, of course, true in both the North and the South, and was aimed at neutralizing the argument that women should not vote because they did not bear arms.
But the idea that women’s suffrage could be linked to African American political rights would not come to fruition. Republicans in Congress focused their attention on African Americans. “One question at a time,” said Wendell Phillips. “This hour belongs to the Negro.”
The 14th Amendment, drafted in late 1865 and ratified in 1866, was proof that the two causes would remain separate. In its attempt to protect the voting rights of African Americans, it instituted a penalty of sorts—a reduction in Congressional representation and votes in the electoral college, according to the percentage of the population disenfranchised by each state. But the language adopted was crucial—the reduction in representation would be according to the number of voting-age males keep outside of the franchise.
The language was significant. It signaled that voting remained the exclusive province of men. Stanton, in a prescient warning, declared “if the word ‘male’ be inserted, it will take us a century at least to get it out.”
The 15th Amendment, passed in 1869 and ratified in 1870 served only to deepen the divide between women’s suffrage and African American voting rights. Not only did the 15th Amendment prohibit discrimination against African American men, in a way condoning discrimination based on sex, but Congress had passed on the opportunity to put forward other, far broader guarantees of the right to vote during the drafting process.
In a moment of great political opportunity, the women’s suffrage movement had stalled. The 14th and 15th Amendments had erected new constitutional barriers to enfranchisement for women, and a long road lay ahead, during which time the franchise would constrict, rather than expand nationwide.
Ideology and partisan politics had combined to prevent progress for the women’s suffrage movement. Even though women had started to organize and call for their rights, little had changed of the traditional assumptions about the roles and capacities of women. And the surge in democratic sentiments had its limits: Republicans had installed guarantees of rights for African Americans before slipping from power, and broader guarantees had proven politically impossible.